This layering of artistic realities alone is an act of resistance to the totalising, mind-engulfing effect the VR goggles have. The odd thing about VR is the extent to which it displaces the viewer’s own imaginative engagement. Although you actively engage with the artwork, and have a degree of control over where you look and what you see, this sense of participation seems to heighten the illusion of agency. It’s why movies about immersive futuristic technologies, such as The Matrix, have tended to gravitate to the question of mind-control rather than their potential to free the mind.
It’s a medium that clearly causes anxiety about the godlike powers it gives the creator of the virtual world. Just by forcing us to acknowledge or remember, even when we’re in the virtual realm, that there’s a physical world we’re in at the same time, Sibande seems to undercut the temptation VR offers to take us away totally. Of course, the effect is complicated by the fact that the physically real space we’re in is already the conceptual space of the installation… it’s also art space.
Sibande’s work has always captured something of the tension between the liberating power of the imagination and its limits. Her famous Sophie figure explores the potential of a private, personal fantasy of transformation – from her position as a domestic servant into a grand Victorian lady – and externalises it in the blue servant’s uniform rendered as an elaborate Victorian dress. The complexity of the Sophie figure has to do not just with the power of the imagination to subvert social and cultural power but also the discomfort of acknowledging the vulnerability of anyone who has these fantasies exposed.
Part of the power of Sibande’s work is in the sense of shock or rupture that you feel when you look at the dreaming figure of Sophie, eyes closed in peace and private contemplation, and yet with her fantasy externalised. It feels as if you’re prying into something personal. Sibande’s artistic courage in taking that step and exposing Sophie’s imaginings to an external gaze is an act of imaginative reparation and a dignifying acknowledgement of that fantasy with all its limitations. But Sophie’s imagination is caught between being her own and her imaginative aspirations being limited or curtailed by terms that are not her own.
Sibande took the idea further with the unnamed purple figure, who is drawn into this VR artwork. The figure seemed in some ways to be a frustrated response to the way that the massive success of Sophie reached a point at which it began to limit Sibande as an artist. While works such as the large-scale digital print in the foyer outside the TMRW gallery shows the purple figure shedding Sophie’s uniform, the unformed shapes she’s surrounded with represent at once the potential and the difficulty of imagining what’s next. This, of course, refers not just to Sibande as an artist but more broadly to the fact that, despite nominal democratic freedom, very little has changed in the social and cultural landscape, especially for the Sophies of the world.
In these respects, Sibande’s work has always involved dramatising the interior world of the imagination – making private fantasy visible to an outside gaze. Her experiment in VR goes in the other direction. Rather than externalising what’s in the mind or imagination of the artist, the physical sculpture (which does that) is internalised in the mind of the viewer.